MISSOULA — What Justin Ford did last year for the Montana Grizzlies likely won't be duplicated for a long time, if ever.
The senior cornerback picked off nine passes in 2021 for the Griz, good enough to lead all of NCAA Division I football. It was the first time since 1972 that a UM player had at least nine interceptions in a season.
Because of that, however, teams have often not looked Ford's way in 2022, but the ever-evolving corner is always looking for ways to round out his game.
"I learned safety before the season even started just in case they weren't throwing it (my way)," Ford said. "At safety, you kind of can't avoid me. I can play either way, just read the quarterback kind of thing so I was prepared for it but first couple games it was really like nothing.
"I'm a playmaker so I was feeling like I wasn't making plays, but that was just simply because they weren't throwing it, so first two games I was trying to force plays to happen and now as the season is going on and finding my own thing and helping the team. Like if they're not throwing it, that's my way of helping the team."
Ford's arrival to Montana was quiet when he joined the team in the summer of 2020, and to hear him tell it, it was a decision Ford was unsure about as he transferred to UM from Louisville where he'd sustained his first serious injury.
"When I committed to Montana, I wasn't that excited to be honest. I was in a point in my life where I just came off the injury for the first time ever, and just some self-doubt, just being out of the game for a couple months or whatever, and just signing," Ford said. "I came from Louisville, ACC, one of the schools of my dreams, and now I sign with Montana, a school I really didn't know too much about, and I tell people all the time that was my best decision I've made in my life so far and it's just been a blessing and how it worked out.
"I felt like it was so much hunger built up and just wanting to show what I could prove. Coming here it was like alright I’m not going to leave it up to chance, it’s going to go right type of thing and that’s kind of the attitude I approach this with."
Ford gave UM fans a taste of what he brought in the abridged spring season in 2021, but in the fall, the Concord, North Carolina, native ran with the Griz and became a unanimous All-American.
Building off of last year statistically is a daunting feat, so Ford has had to find more ways to make his presence felt and prove he can do everything on the defensive side of the ball.
"Just making sure my technique is clean no matter what," Ford said. "If the ball is coming my way or not, just so that teams are seeing why teams aren't throwing the ball. Yeah the ball is not coming my way, but if you look at the coverage I'm right on my man and that's the reason why and that's kind of what I've been doing.
"If it's a run play I'm trying to set the edge, like I'm physical so I'm trying to shut the edge every time, make big tackles. Finding different ways to be active. If they're going to go away from me, I'll go chase the ball myself. The last play is what they remember, so if I get a pick, I want to pick the next play I get out there.
"If I got a fumble, I want to get a fumble the next play because no matter what, say I get a pick and the next play they get a touchdown, they’ll remember the touchdown, so that’s one thing, not getting too high not getting too low. Make sure you leave the right impression on the last play."
Ford has interceptions in the last two games for the Griz as teams have tested him, but he's been up to the challenge.
Ford himself even tries to coax them into trying him.
"I thought my trash talking was going to get some passes to go my way but I think they caught onto that," Ford said. "I talk some trash. It's not like terrible, but I talk to the offensive coordinator or the head coach or whatever just so that I know he's trying to shut me up so the only way to do that is throw the ball at me."
But that energy is contagious, as Ford has become a fan favorite in his time at Montana, with his high energy and highlight reel plays.
"It’s great and I think I’m the perfect person for it because no matter what’s going on, I’ll never be down," Ford said. "We could be losing by 20, I’m still going to make sure this crowd is pumped and we need them. The crowd is a big part of why we’re successful. I take that patch with honor and it’s how I play the game. It’s not fake at all, that’s just honestly how I feel."
It's been a long college football road for Ford, a player with aspirations to play professional football when college is done.
But those obstacles have built him into the player he is now with the Griz, as he remains confident in what his team can accomplish this season, before it's all said and done.
"I think the most important thing about my college football journey is adversity," Ford said. "To be honest, I've been through so much ups and downs and probably more downs than ups and still being here, there were some moments especially in junior college where I didn't think I was going to be here.
"I thought the game was not for me, I thought some things just weren't working my way and it just kept not going my way and it was just sticking through it. I had a great group of friends at that time that just pushed me through and just said hey see what happens and here I am now and that's a great thing.
"I had a chip last year because nobody knew who I am and now I feel like I have a chip on my shoulder because people do know who I am and I just want to prove that I'm the best in everything. I just want to prove that I'm the best corner in general."